Thursday, January 20, 2005

Summers apologizes 

This is disappointing, but Harvard President Larry Summers has apparently been going out of his way to apologize to anyone who'll listen to him for his suggestion that there might be some natural causes for women to underperform men in mathematics. David Bernstein makes a good point:
I can see the argument that perhaps statistical generalizations will give aid and comfort to those who are inclined to begin with to discriminate against the group in question (even though logically they are given no quarter by the generalization: even if, for example, Jews are less likely than Gentiles to be tall enough to play professional basketball, you don't turn down Dolph Shayes when he shows up at training camp). But I think the outrage expressed goes beyond that. I find that people have difficulty understanding that broad statistical generalizations don't justify leaping to conclusions about individuals. I once heard of a professor who gave a faculty workshop at a major law school in which the speaker pointed out that adoptive and step-parents are far more likely to abuse their children than are natural parents. The speaker noted, of course, that the vast majority of adoptive and step-parents don't abuse their children, it's just that they are far more likely to compared with natural parents. Nevertheless, informed sources tell me that adoptive and stepparents in the audience were gravely and personally offended, and accused the speaker of promoting Nazi-like theories of biological merit. I simply can't understand this logic. How do you get from "the vast majority of adoptive parents don't abuse their children, but are more likely than biological parents to abuse their children" to "you, as an adoptive parent, are under suspicion" for abusing your child? And unlike the continuing nature/nurture debate with regard to women's career choices, my understanding is that the higher rate of abuse among non-natural parents is a documented fact, but that didn't stop the outrage.

I cannot tell you how much confusion I find over statistical statements made to people unprepared to receive them, even people very smart and mathematically exceptional. Co-Conspirator Todd Zywicki shows my point by wondering what would have happened to Summers had he said this instead:
"The distribution of natural endowments for math abilities for men show the same mean but greater variance than math abilities for women. Therefore, men will be disproportionately represented at the tails of the distribution relative to women. In other words, there are likely to be more men in society than women with unusually poor and below-average math skills."

I can predict what would have happened: Most everyone would have let it pass, but not because they were pleased that it put men down. They would have let it pass because it's too subtle for most people to understand.

It wouldn't even help for Steven Pinker to explain it to them.
Perhaps the hypothesis is wrong, but how would we ever find out whether it is wrong if it is �offensive� even to consider it? People who storm out of a meeting at the mention of a hypothesis, or declare it taboo or offensive without providing arguments or evidence, don�t get the concept of a university or free inquiry.